Like the penny-readings delivered by Sir Despard Murgatroyd, the reformed villain of Ruddigore, Sarah Brown's Downing Street diaries, serialised last week in the Daily Mail, were not remarkably entertaining.
We learned that the one-time chatelaine of No 10 mistakenly ushered Rudy Giuliani's wife into a crockery cupboard and invited Prince Andrew to inspect the death-mask of that avid Royalist, Oliver Cromwell, that it is the custom for Downing Street staff to offer polite applause when fresh tenants arrive, and that Gordon – bless him – was simply too busy to arrange for a framed photograph of himself to be displayed on the wall next to his illustrious predecessors.
No shred of blame attaches itself to Mrs Brown for these longueurs, of course, for the genre which she has begun to colonise – the politician's or politician's associate's journal – is thoroughly debased, as ripe for pastiche as Sir Andrew Motion's recent attempt at civic liturgy. Prolonged exposure to its key texts – the wrong end of the stick falling into Tony Benn's well-intentioned hand, Alan Clark's quaint acronyms (EMT = "early morning tea" etc) and Edwina Currie's ministerial grinds – has brought familiarity, and with familiarity comes contempt. Bumping into a distinguished but now seatless former Cabinet minister at a party the other week, and discussing the books that he might write in his considerable leisure, I found myself asking: "What about the diary?" "There isn't one," this former frontbench titan declared, provoking the novel sensation that here was a henchman of Tony's who had done the right thing.
Literary diaries are a different matter. Trying to work out where the pension is to come from in 30 years' time, I sometimes envisage writing a journal of the kind that Auberon Waugh used to contribute to Private Eye, in which the line between what is real and what is imaginary is not immediately clear. The day VS Naipaul and I went to the Notting Hill Carnival! The arm-wrestling contest with Martin Amis at the Emirates Literary Festival! Accompanying that fine tenor Naguib Mahfouz on banjo at the Khan el-Khalili bazaar! It will all be there, and have the edge on Mrs Giuliani's mishap in the crockery store.
It was my wife, half-way through a TV programme about the King James Bible, who put into words the vague unease one always experiences when monitoring the BBC's new-found enthusiasm for books. "It makes me so cross," she remarked, which turned out not to be judgement on Adam Nicolson's excellent documentary but a protest at its relegation to BBC4.
I saw her point. The BBC schedules are currently awash with literary features. However, this being the BBC, the usual demarcations apply. While BBC2 is zealously feeding off itself, by inviting "celebrities" who just happen to work for BBC2 to be cross-questioned by that grand literary panjandrum Anne Robinson, the really good stuff goes out on its chronically underfunded digital cousin.
The juxtapositions that this kind of cultural apartheid involves are rather striking. Last Monday night, for example, BBC4 offered 150 minutes of top-grade material: the third instalment of a series called The Beauty of Books, followed by Nicolson on King James and then a travelogue marking the half-century of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. But hang on, the low-brow TV reviewer will murmur, isn't this all minority-interest egghead stuff? In fact, The Beauty of Books spent its last 10 minutes discussing the illustrations to Julia Donaldson's Gruffalo series, copies of which can probably be found on half the nation's bookshelves, while the language that most of us speak, without the King James, would be rather like popular music without The Beatles. Why couldn't this have been shown to the mass audience of BBC2, who instead are treated to the gruesome spectacle of Ms Robinson hobnobbing with Giles Coren? At the moment terrestrial BBC's mission seems to be to remind us of one of my favourite cultural adages – that if you give people potatoes to eat, then potatoes is what they will like.
The assumption that nearly every injustice can eventually be laid at the door of snobbery is one of the great consolations of modern life. There was a splendid example of it in last week's Radio Times, where Michael Grade could be found ascribing the 83-year-old Bruce Forsyth's inability to secure a knighthood to Whitehall's "innate snobbery"towards music-hall-style light entertainment.
Leaving aside the question of why Mr Forsyth should be worth the top-most card in the ceremonial pack, it is worth pointing out that the "Establishment" has always been fairly keen on light entertainment. Harry Lauder, for example, was among the last century's crop of knights bachelor. George Robey was offered a KBE but declined it, and the incorrigibly vulgar George Formby ("Now Mr Wu/ He's got a naughty eye that flickers/And you should see him when he's ironing ladies' ... blouses" etc) was a favourite of George VI.
The same note was struck in Andrew Neil's recent television programme about the influence of former public schoolboys in the country's administration. As the academic Byron Criddle, co-author, with Robert Waller, of the invaluable Almanac of British Politics demonstrated in a letter to last week's Private Eye, the proportion of former public-school pupils in the Cabinet, the Conservative Party and Parliament as a whole is in decline. None of this, alas, makes good TV, or even bracing articles in the Radio Times.
As an aficionado of soccer idiom, I was delighted to see John Terry add to the word-hoard by counselling his Chelsea team-mates to "man up" for their Champions League fixture against FC Copenhagen. Delight, though, came mingled with an acknowledgment that soccer idiom is woefully impoverished in its attack. Take, for example, Ron Atkinson's celebrated "early doors" phrase (the exact origin and meaning of which is still debated), or Wayne Rooney, asked to describe the sensation of scoring his first Premier League goal, declaring that he was "made up".
To "man up" has for some time translated as to "get stuck in". It is all a long way from some of the inspired demotic of a century ago, such as the slang injunction to "use your loaf" or "twopenny" (twopenny loaf of bread = head) or "Never introduce your donah [girlfriend] to a pal". As in other areas of contemporary life, no doubt we get the slang we deserve.Reuse content